The left – rightly or wrongly — has long suffered from a reputation that when it comes to progressive politics, national security is not a top priority. Now, under the Trump administration, there is a growing chorus of critics – both Democrats and Republicans – claiming that there really is no such thing as a liberal, progressive national security platform.
Some have remarked that the threads that were once woven together to create at least some semblance of a cohesive liberal national security strategy are now tearing at the seams. Sometimes it’s an issue-specific divide, like defining what U.S. policy should be in Syria. There is also concern being voiced that the left’s foreign policy platform is plagued by a more general emptiness, and that, when it comes to national security, progressives are out of their depth. In any case, the argument is usually that the left can agree on a few foreign policy principles, but not on how to translate them into actionable policy ideas.
But, foreign policy and national security showcase the “big tent” dynamism that is central to the progressive agenda. While conservatives often express verbal disagreement, but end up voting with, or otherwise falling in line with the president, liberals debate nuance and battle over specifics on policies like healthcare, wages, and anti-climate change measures, no matter how mundane the points of argument may sometimes appear. We have, and will always, continue to argue over a definition that will predictably elude us. Liberals and progressives speak in a uniform voice on very few issues, let alone something that inspires as much passion as national security.
But this should be embraced. Dissension is in our blood; it is a feature, not a bug of the wider left. Our “big tent” nature leads us to have fierce debates on policy specifics, which are guided by our dearly held values. We don’t have these debates because they are in vogue or are interesting in themselves, or because the process lends itself to an endless array of think-pieces, we have them to survive.
There are, however, basic principles that the community on the left holds dear, and they are the key organizing principles. The one truth of progressive national security and foreign policy which appears to be consistently overlooked is that our policy arguments directly reflect progressive and liberal values, and nothing will ever change that. We may argue on the best pathway to our stated goals and their different applications, but the pillars of our movement have never shifted.
A progressive national security and foreign policy agenda is first and foremost about protection: protecting American soil, protecting American interests at home and abroad, and protecting vulnerable communities around the globe. Progressives can craft policies that provide security and defense with empathy, recalling that we are here to serve all those who reside within our borders, regardless of their status upon arrival. Our role on the world stage must be informed by the fact that we are a nation built physically by those who were in bondage, as well as with the condition that not all of us can be free until every one of us, equally, is free.
So we support immigrants, migrants and refugees, understanding the necessity to adhere to law and procedures that keep us safe, but also demanding that unjust laws be reformed. We can maintain the safety and sanctity of our nation and its borders without inherent cruelty and discrimination. We do not resort to isolationism to protect us from our enemies, because turning our back on problems offers no protection at all, especially when done at the expense of children and families who are fleeing violence. And because America is safer when the world is more stable, we reject wars of choice but should remain open to humanitarian interventions that are undertaken in the right ways (alongside our allies and with thought to the consequences) and for the right reasons.
Tangent to this issue of protection is another core progressive national security and foreign policy value: inclusion. It is our duty to protect communities–especially minority communities that are under attack, whether it be because of their citizenship status, race, religion, gender or political values–both at home and abroad. This is not for the sake of “identity politics,” but to ensure that the policies we implement are reflective of, and developed in consultation with, the people and communities they are meant to serve. To say there is strength in diversity is not to recite some empty poetic psalm to rally a base. On the contrary, it comes from the clear tactical and strategic facts that more innovative ideas, more critical thinking and more solutions to problems on all levels–local, state, federal and international–result when teams prioritize diversity in thought and culture. To be siloed with the same perspectives and ways of thinking from people with the same general backgrounds as one’s own is to find oneself flat-footed and inflexible in the face of constantly dynamic and fluid challenges.
In a very real and non-controversial manner, that is the nature of the current threats the United States and the global community face today. Truman National Security Project, where I serve as the interim executive director, is a membership community of policy, political, and veteran thinkers and advocates with a variety of experiences who live and work across the U.S. and the globe. We’ve long understood the need for policies to reflect the real-life experiences of the people who have to live with the consequences of those decisions. This means striving to have policymakers that represent the diversity of American citizenry. Similarly, fighting extremism and authoritarianism abroad requires facing our own characteristics and actions that increasingly resemble those of the governments we oppose. This starts with protecting the rights of religious and ethnic minority communities, amplifying their voices in our national consciousness, and not diminishing their communities’ power and influence by forced assimilation. We are a diverse nation, and better for it–and we must encourage other countries to follow this same path. These beliefs are not new, but instead remain at the very nature of liberal, progressive values.
Strength in diversity goes hand in hand with a third tenet of progressive national security and foreign policy: the idea that our alliances make us stronger and safer. In the aftermath of World War II, our active role in leading a growing community of nations committed to democratic values has defined our foreign policy. We are the nation whose dedication to freedom and peace should not be simply reflected in song or cloth as part of a national mythology, but demonstrated in the relationships we have maintained for generations. To be sure, we have not always arrived at our responsibility to the world community quickly, nor have we always made choices that prioritized just outcomes for all people rather than just our strategic interests. A progressive national security and foreign policy must realize these past shortcomings, but it can also embrace the fact that America should continue to strive to be a force for good around the world. It also must recall that from the Revolutionary War to the attacks on September 11, 2001, our allies have time and time again answered our call of support in aide, in arms and in service to a common cause–all as a direct result of our past of investment, cooperation and work towards interoperability with those allies.
In short, we recognize that a global community partnership and overall stability makes for a safer America. And to reach that stability, America must again return to its role as a leader both geopolitically and within the free market, working with other nations to solve collective action problems like climate change and nuclear proliferation, and to set new rules and norms that address old problems of territoriality and new frontiers like cyberspace. Turning our back on international institutions or denouncing them as unfair to us is not only hypocritical and feckless–it abdicates our seat at the table, where we can shape the debate and fight for the things that we need. Without American leadership, powers like Russia and China will dominate the international conversation–and they’ll be glad to do so without paying even lip service to questions of human rights, environmental protection and international justice.
Finally, the fourth core of progressive national security and foreign policy–inexorably linked to the value of alliances–is the willingness to strive for global stability. Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, we have spent trillions in blood and treasure; the result is a generation of young citizens that know nothing but endless war in the background of their lives, and a warrior class called on repeatedly to protect and serve our interests. None of this is sustainable without continued damage to our military’s readiness and our nation’s financial sustainability. Liberals and progressives strive for a world without war or conflict understanding that it will take a smart power approach for us to achieve this goal. If we are ever to get there – or even close to that place — we must learn to see military responses as, at best, a last resort. And we must do this while understanding that, when necessary, we will protect ourselves and our interest with the full force of our military capabilities.
That said, diplomacy is now and should forever be the tip of the security spear. Moreover, military and national security leaders know that smart development approaches–not those that simply represent our financial interests, but work that involves people on the ground, assesses progress over time, and is conditioned on encouraging our allies and partners to hold themselves to a higher standard of respect to human rights and human dignity–alleviate the conditions that exacerbate conflict and extremism. We must hone our ability to promote democracy in this way: not imposed by force or expected to be in our own unique mold, but with patience, support and a quiet resolve to prioritize good outcomes above all else. Our approach to our enemies and allies alike is what defines us in this moment. It is how our children and their children will remember us. And it is how we will secure long-term safety and prosperity for all.
So these are the pillars of a progressive national security and foreign policy strategy: protection, inclusion, alliances and global stability. They are not a platform, or a list of specific policy positions that a candidate must adhere to in order to be declared a progressive on these issues, because that’s not how the American left works. They are, however, bounds for the conversation that preclude empirically broken ideologies, from military-first, military-only, neo-conservatism to entirely passive pacifist-isolationism, and avoid simply repackaging old bipartisan foreign policy consensus under a new label. They are also foundational values, upon which all progressive national security and foreign policy principles should be built in service of a stronger, safer and more just America at home and American presence abroad.
Because ultimately, there should be no difference between the values the liberally minded hold on their domestic issues versus what they may hold dear in the arena of national security and foreign policy. Some see the lack of a unified voice as a weakness within our ranks, but it is instead the diversity of culture, voices and thought that serves as the foundation of our strength. The authoritarian style of this administration presents new challenges Americans have not faced in multiple generations, if ever. With those challenges, however, comes the opportunity for the left to reassert that its national security agenda aligns with both core American values as well as the core values of the broader, nonpartisan national security community. The community’s dedication to these pillars has never faltered, and together, we will continue to build on these foundations towards something better for the future.